With breathtaking mountain scenery and superb single-track, last year’s Fat Dog 100 was epic. Unfortunately the race course was longer than intended by nearly a marathon (re-measured as closer to 125 miles). This left me wanting to test myself on a course I knew to be 100 miles, ideally a flat and fast one. After hearing Benji’s experience with Rocky Raccoon, I knew it met these criteria. My goal was to cover the distance in under 24hrs.
Rocky Raccoon takes place every February in Huntsville State Park, a couple hours north of Houston, Texas. The course consists of five laps of a 20 mile loop that roughly circumnavigates Lake Raven. The trails are primarily soft, twisty, single-track through pine forest, giving them the welcome familiarity of Pacific Spirit Park. While the terrain is mostly flat or rolling, there are a few sustained climbs that seem to get bigger with each lap. Leading up to the race, four very prominent ultrarunners signed up at the last minute: Scott Jurek, Anton Krupicka, Hal Koerner, and Karl Meltzer. The thought of sharing the trails with these guys and perhaps crossing paths on a few out-and-back sections definitely added to the excitement.
Just getting to Huntsville for the start of the race was a battle for many racers this year. A large storm brought freezing rain and general panic to Texas earlier that week. Temperatures were well below seasonal. Melody and I were very lucky to catch the last flight out of Seattle before the Houston airport began shutting down. We used the plastic dish from our hotel room ice tray to scrape ¼” of ice from our rental car before driving to the packet pickup. Not what we were expecting!
To add further drama, I missed the race start by about a minute as we were running a bit late. Truth be told though, the gun went off at 5:59am – who starts a race early?! My spirits were nonetheless high as I knew there’d be a long day ahead of me. I crossed the timing mat in last place then started making my way through the field. Near the back of the pack, I overheard conversations like “I hope I can make the cutoff”. Later I overheard things like “so I was running 5th at Miwok last year when…” I knew I had definitely gone far enough through the field and settled into a groove.
The cold and icy conditions were catching lots of local runners off guard. The wooden boardwalks had frozen over, roots had become slick, and many folks seemed inadequately dressed for the temperatures at the start (-5oC). Fortunately for me, none of this was outside my comfort zone given my North Shore winter training. Trudging up Old Mountain Highway in shin-deep snow and learning to scamper on slippery, off-camber boardwalks on the Baden Powell were paying off!
The first two laps were uneventful. I was running at a comfortable pace and was exactly between the fast and target times in my pre-race prediction spreadsheet. This gave me enormous satisfaction as those who know me can imagine. The aid stations were very close together (encountered every ½ hr to 1hr of running) and exceptionally well stocked: breakfast burritos with eggs and potatoes, quesadillas, grilled cheese sandwiches, soup, orange slices, fig newtons. In later laps, I enjoyed rice with sausage and even a quarter hamburger with avocado slices – all delicious! I tried to stay off the Coke until the last lap.
Some runners recognized my White River shirt and we chatted about west coast races. After learning where I was from, I was given the nickname ‘Vancouver’. I’d randomly hear “Hey Vancouver, looking good!” at different points along the course, which was definitely encouraging. During an out-and-back section, I encountered Krupicka, Koerner, and Jurek all within a few seconds of each other and running strong. As we crossed paths, I yelled “nice work Scott!’ to which he replied “thanks, looking good” despite not actually glancing up to look at me. Given the attention he gets, this must be a pretty standard response for him. It was very exciting to see these guys in action and feel like you’re part of the mix.
While on lap 3, a pair of runners quickly and silently caught me from behind. With a simply ‘howdy’, Krupicka and Koerner called out to pass then effortlessly cleared the horizon on one of the climbs up the far side past the Damnation aid station. It was great to watch them run and work together and for a brief moment in time, I was actually ahead of these two superstars on a great piece of single-track, albeit 20 miles back!
A short while later, I found myself yo-yo’ing with three runners actually on my lap. Andrew, Jeff, and Matt were running in a tight pack and had the same sub-24hr goal. I linked up with their group and we created a four person train, pacing well, sharing stories, and exchanging the usual random banter that ultrarunners migrate to when blood sugar levels are low. The time went by as we tried to recite as many lines as we could remember from the “I Am An Ultrarunner”1 and “I Am An Ironman”2 videos circulating on the internet. Matt picked up the pace in the last half of lap 3 and disappeared from view (that was the last we would see of him until the finish). Andrew, Jeff and I maintained our pace and finished the lap together.
At the start of lap 4, we picked up Melody to pace us before night fell. Up to this point, she had been providing impeccable crew support at each accessible aid station. Running with her was fantastic, making it seem like just another training run. She snapped photos of our merry group as we ran.
Somewhere along this leg, I was looking back for some reason, not paying attention to the trail, then BAM! I trip on a root and hit the dirt pretty hard. Fortunately it wasn’t a bad spot to fall. I was left with only a slightly bruised quad and some leaves randomly stuck to me. The irony was that moments earlier, I was thinking about how all my training on the Baden Powell had supremely prepared me for technical running and had made the roots at Rocky seem trivial – I was feeling bad for these Texans stubbing their toes and taking falls all over the place. To add insult to injury, the timing’s terrible if you’re trying to impress your girlfriend, which is indeed what I was trying to do. Fortunately it was my one and only crash.
Melody ran with us until the Nature aid station. She originally planned to pace me for a complete 20 mile lap but unfortunately she suffered a knee injury two weeks earlier. We decided a few days before the race for her to only run a portion of a loop then walk back to the start/finish to avoid risking further injury.
Nightfall came part way through lap 4. The three of us had been running with headlamps on during twilight but just before dusk, I told them I had a special surprise. I turned on my Filzer flashlight lighting up the trail as if a train were following us. Our headlamps filled in any remaining shadows and our night time pace didn’t feel limited by visibility. We continued to tick over the miles just as we had done during the day. At one point, the trail follows a causeway across Lake Raven with wide open space above. I was lucky enough to witness the brightest night sky I’ve seen in years – definitely a highlight of the race.
Our time for lap 4 was almost one hour slower than the first lap, which I was pleased with since it was close to my pre-race target. We had been running for almost 16hrs and all systems were still functioning normally: no muscle cramping, stomach issues, or joint pain, only a general sense of fatigue slowly creeping in. My hourly caloric and salt intake remained good: 200 to 300 calories plus two Thermolytes per hour. I drank either plain water or water with a Nuun cap. This was a departure from my normal strategy for the past few years which was to use a CarboPro / Perpeteum mix. My hope was that eating real food at each aid station would compensate for the lack of liquid calories.
At the start of lap 5, it became clear that Andrew was shifting gears into survival mode. Jeff and I continued on after thanking him profusely for his support and company. We alternated who lead up front and continued to work well as a team. We discussed the running scene in our respective hometowns. He told me there are very few in Washington, DC, interested in this sport and that he trains exclusively by himself. In contrast, I told him about the tight-knit and tremendously supportive trail running community in Vancouver and how I feel fortunate to be a part of it.
At this point in the race, we were lapping large numbers of walkers aiming to finish before the 30hr cutoff. Many of them looked pretty rough, most seemed cold, and few were acknowledging our encouraging words as we passed by. Fortunately most of them had pacers or had joined forces with fellow walkers. Watching them reminded me of my own death march experience in the last half of Fat Dog, definitely not a fun place to be.
With less than half a loop to go, Jeff and I encountered another runner and his pacer on the same lap as us. He was running pretty well but I knew that Jeff and I were a touch faster since we had reeled him in. At this point, I certainly didn’t care about beating anyone or moving up the ranking by one spot. What did matter was keeping our minds engaged, staying focused, and not falling off the pace in the final closing miles. After we passed our mystery competitor, his trailing headlamp made us feel like prey. Most importantly though, we felt motivated! We began jogging up hills that we’d previously walked. We floated down the descents and carried our speed through the corners. My turnover had definitely picked up and Jeff and I matched each other in lock step. We continued strongly to the finish and crossed the timing mat at the same time. What a relief!
The clock showed 20:39, more than 3hrs under my 24hr goal and a whopping 17hrs faster than my Fat Dog debut. I don’t think I’ll ever PB by that amount again – I felt elated.
After the race, I thanked Joe, the race director, for putting on a superbly organized event. The course and the volunteer staff at each aid station were outstanding. As for the race at the front, a new course record was set by a relative unknown named Ian Sharman, a blistering 12:44. Initially there was talk of this being a world best performance for 100 miles on trail. Later we learned that a Swedish runner had run 12:32(!) in a race in Sweden last year. Krupicka, Koerner, and Meltzer finished 2nd, 3rd, and 4th respectively. Jurek had dropped at 60 miles. The women’s race was won by local favourite Liza Howard in a smoking fast 15:33.
Having run two of these things now, it feels appropriate to compare the experiences. Notable differences between the two events:
- RR course distance is accurate to within tens of metres. FD was too long by about 40km.
- RR aid stations are very close together. FD had long unsupported stretches between aid.
- RR is on easily accessible and relatively flat terrain in a state park. FD took place in the remote backcountry with lots of vertical and few bailout options in the mountains.
- A euphoric feeling after crossing the finish
- A sweet belt buckle!
Things that worked
- Pre-race predictions were within 15 minutes for each lap.
- Wearing shorts with calf compression sleeves kept me warm, even at -5C (tights would’ve been too hot and constricting).
- Fueling was good: took in 200 to 300 calories per hour consisting of one gel or bar an hour plus something substantial (real food) at every aid station. Took two Thermolytes an hour. Drank water with Nuun. Hammer bars were delicious!
- No cramping, no stomach problems, good transition to fat-burning mode after 4hrs of running.
- Running with only a fanny pack and handheld was ideal for this type of race. Camelback tubes would have frozen. A backpack would’ve been overkill given the frequent aid stations on the course.
- Running with Jeff and Andrew for the last third of the race was critical. We maintained our pace, stayed focused, and finished fast.
- Filzer handheld flashlight was exceptionally bright and lit up the trail better than we needed.
- The same pair of Brooks Cascadia was worn for the entire race and performed great. Only got one toe blister (not painful).
Things that didn’t work
- Should have worn shorts with pockets to take gel and bar wrappers.
- Lost a mitt while getting out a salt pill – need to be more careful.
- Black Diamond headlamp ran out of juice on the full intensity setting after a few hours. Should use new Petzl headlamp that’s almost as powerful but has a much longer life.
- Three bathroom breaks cost 5 to 6 minutes each. Need to acclimatize better to time zone changes to maintain usual pre-race routine.